And just like that, basketball fans across the world were reminded of the cruel fragility of an NBA season. In a matter of seconds, the playoff hopes of multiple teams were sent spiraling. Steph Curry, the league’s reigning MVP, slipped on a wet spot as time expired in the first half of game 4. His right knee buckled as he fell with what has now been diagnosed as an MCL sprain. Within 24 hours of Curry’s injury, the Clippers announced that stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin would miss the rest of the NBA playoffs (barring some sort of miracle that would allow Paul to play with a fractured right hand). Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are still playing without their All-Defensive Team caliber guard Avery Bradley, who suffered a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter of the team’s first matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.
These injuries have the potential to derail almost half of the remaining teams’ playoff dreams, and while no one likes to see star players get injured, it’s an unavoidable part of the game. Just ask Bulls fans, who watched their MVP tear his ACL in garbage time of a first round matchup in 2012. Or Cavaliers fans, who saw Kevin Love dislocate his shoulder in a divisional matchup against the Celtics, followed by Kyrie Irving’s knee injury in the first game of the NBA Finals. Or even ask Grizzles fans, who painfully endured through the second half of the season after losing Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, only to be swept by the Spurs. Given that these types of freak accidents can monumentally shift the playoff landscape, it’s time to take another look at the remaining teams and offer some predictions for how these NBA playoffs will play out.
The Eastern Conference
Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (7)
Toronto Leads Series 3-2
This one could just as easily have been a 3-2 lead for the Pacers had Solomon Hill’s buzzer-beater not been called off at the end of game 5. The Raptors seem determined to finish this series out, but Kyle Lowry’s offensive performances have been lackluster, and teammate DeMar DeRozan has not consistently played to the level fans expect from him. Expect Paul George to put on another dominant performance or two, but with what seems like the entirety of the Great White North at their back, look for the Raptors to pull this one out in Game 7.
Prediction: Raptors in 7
Miami Heat (3) vs. Charlotte Hornets (6)
Series Tied 2-2
Jeremy Lin is the gift that keeps on giving. Whether it’s his hair, his tenacity driving to the hoop, or his bank 3-pointers (the shrug says he didn’t call glass, by the way), Lin has been a revelation for his Hornets. Kemba Walker, the team’s star, has been less than himself this series and will need to tap into some of his 2011 UConn magic to propel his team forward. Given that the Hornets haven’t seemed to be able to do anything in Miami, home court advantage should be just that. Heat in 7.
Prediction: Heat in 7
Atlanta Hawks (4) vs. Boston Celtics (5)
Atlanta Leads Series 3-2
Give Brad Stevens all the credit in the world – he deserves it. No one expected this Celtics team to be as good as they were this season, making it to the playoffs and handing the 73-9 Warriors their first loss of the season in Oracle Arena. Now without Avery Bradley and possibly Isaiah Thomas (who sprained his ankle in game 5, but states he’s “playing no matter what”), the Celtics simply don’t have the weapons to take down a well-orchestrated Hawks unit. The lack of Bradley’s defensive presence was abundantly clear in game 5, where the Hawks dominated from the 3-point line, and Marcus Smart showed why – despite a magnificent game 4 – he was a sub-30% shooter from beyond the arc this season. The Hawks should close this series out in 6 playing against an injured Isaiah Thomas.
Prediction: Hawks in 6
If Atlanta wants to prove they can compete for a championship, they’ll have to do so against a tough Cavaliers squad in the conference semifinals. If they can keep the ball moving (which is not an easy task against the defensively staunch Cavs), they might have a fighting chance to extend the series to 6, maybe even 7 games, although Cleveland has this Lebron James guy, who I’ve heard is pretty good.
The other half of the conference semis should be an exciting matchup, as all four teams fighting for a shot are fairly evenly balanced. Look for star power to win out in big games, so I would expect the Heat and their veteran leadership to advance. If Lowry and DeRozan can turn around their early playoff woes (get it?), Toronto could make a serious push, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Houston Rockets (8)
Warriors Lead Series 3-1
Oh wait do I need to write more? The reigning champs are playing without the best player on the planet, but it hardly looks like the Rockets are playing at all. After Steph went down at the end of the first half, the Rockets should have smelt the blood in the water – tied at halftime, on their home court they had a chance to even the series and prove that they belong among the league’s elite teams. What happened? The Steph-less Warriors unleashed a 3-point barrage, scoring more points in the 3rd quarter than the Rockets did in the entire second half. James Harden did seem to get a good nap in during the game, so hopefully he’ll be rested enough to not run back on defense some more. Again, Warriors in 5.
Prediction: Warriors in 5
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Portland Trailblazers (5)
Series Tied 2-2
After 2 games, the Clippers looked like they had this one in the bag. They embarrassed Portland in the Staples Center, and the Blazers tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum couldn’t seem to get a shot off, let alone make one. The series moved up to Portland for two games and the Trailblazers came back to life. Moreover, game 4 saw Chris Paul fracture his hand trying to strip the ball from a driving Gerald Henderson (a routine play he’s made thousands of times in his basketball career) and Blake Griffin re-aggravated a quad injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season. The Clippers are a good, deep team, with bench weapons like 3-peat 6th Man of the Year Jamaal Crawford, as well as Jeff Green, Austin Rivers, and Paul Pierce. Expect Austin Rivers to have at least one big game in Chris Paul’s place, and to see the Clippers fighting hard to the end of the series, but without CP3 and Blake, they just don’t have the same offensive firepower. Portland should take one in LA and win in 7.
Prediction: Blazers in 7
The biggest looming question in the Western Conference is how long Steph Curry will be sidelined. The Warriors are arguably the deepest team in the NBA and should be able to use that to advance to the Western Conference Finals, but beating San Antonio, or even Oklahoma City, without the MVP will be a tall order. As of now, Curry is sidelined for two weeks, at which point his knee will be reevaluated. If he only misses two weeks, I believe the Warriors are still the favorite to win the championship, but if his injury lingers and San Antonio can take one of the first two games of the conference finals in Oracle, they’re going to be tough to stop.
Of course, the Thunder have a chance to take down the Spurs, but the Spurs are good. Historically good. While the league got caught up in the Warriors’ chase for the best single-season record, the Spurs quietly logged a 67-win season, which is tied for 7th best all time. I’m not saying the Thunder can’t do it, but I don’t think Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are going to have much fun with Danny Green and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard guarding them.
Featured Image Via Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports